What I’ve been reading

by on September 25, 2017 at 12:53 am in Books | Permalink

1. The New Testament, translated by David Bentley Hart, Yale University Press.  I’ve spent a good bit of time with this book, and if you own and read a few New Testaments, this should be one of them.  It is the most accurate translation conceptually and philosophically, taking care to render the Greek of that period as faithfully as possible.  It doesn’t try to make the text “read nice,” nor does it make all of the books sound the same.  Of course, with any Bible translation you care both about a) what the authors really meant, and b) what other readers of the Bible thought they were imbibing.  By the very nature of its virtues, this volume is weak on b) precisely because it is strong on a), and thus it probably should not be your first translation.  Still, if you are tempted, this is more and better than “just another New Testament.”

2. Richard McGregor, Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century.  I am sick of books on these topics, because they tend to repeat the same old same old.  This one has fresh content on almost every page, and it is especially strong on explaining how the revisionist history debates in China and Japan fit into domestic politics and also foreign policy.

3. Barry Hatton, The Portuguese: A Modern History.  “Portugal largely missed the Enlightenment.”  This is the best introduction I know to that charming country.  In 1986, Portugal had only 123 miles of highway.  It had not occurred to me, by the way, that the 1974 coup was the first Western European revolution since 1848, unless you count the Nazis.  Here is a picture showing Portugal as an Atlantic rather than Mediterranean economy.  Explanation here.

4. Nils Karlson, Statecraft and Liberal Reform in Advanced Democracies.  How did liberal reforms happen in Australia and Sweden?  This book tells you about the world, rather than the theory or the taxonomy.  There should be many more books of this sort, a study in actual public choice.

Arrived in my pile is:

Barry Eichengreen, Arnaud Mehl, and Livia Chitu, How Global Currencies Work: Past, Present, and Future.

For economic historians I can recommend Bruce M.S. Campbell, The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World.

1 Anonymous Bosch September 25, 2017 at 1:42 am

1. “It is the most accurate translation conceptually and philosophically…”

To make such a claim with any credibility arguably requires that you are an expert on the Greek of the period, have read and compared all the major translations, followed scholarly debates about the possible meanings of contested concepts, etc. I suspect you do not know what you’re talking about, and probably do not know that you do not know.


2 prior_test3 September 25, 2017 at 2:36 am

Come now, as highlighted by noted columnist George Will, Prof. Cowen is a professor of economics, law, and literature. Clearly he has the necessary background to pronounce final judgment on a Bible translation.

Just take it on faith, loyal readers.


3 Assf September 25, 2017 at 2:45 am

Tyler has a certain approach to bible study and he is letting you know it. It seems very much concerned with demystifying the good book, showing there is no wizard behind the curtain after all. Decidedly not the impression I came away with from my education, but reasonable minds may disagree.


4 2nd str September 25, 2017 at 3:03 am

I’m not so sure I would assume that but perhaps I’m misreading your reply. What he says about the book is basically what is says on the tin. Milbanks short review on Amazon is worth a read and it might be worth considering the author is Eastern Orthodox.


5 2nd str September 25, 2017 at 3:07 am

David Bentley Hart, the translator not the author.


6 prior_test3 September 25, 2017 at 4:10 am

‘the translator not the author’

But that is, in itself, a fascinating point, at least when it comes to putatively divinely inspired text. Such as the Book of Mormon, where Smith was merely the translator of text from reformed Egyptian. The prophets who wrote the plates were divinely inspired, making authorship murky even in this quite modern case. At least the extent that Abrahamic religions broadly acknowledge that while it is obvious that most of their holy texts were written by a human (though something like the Tablets of Stone, at least according to what is found in the Old Testament, were originally authored by god, then later rewritten by God after a man recreated them), a divine deity directly provided at least the first draft to the actual human author.

Depending on your faith, of course.

(Though it is fascinating to see how what one would assume is among the most truly public domain works imaginable can be copyrighted by its translator.)

7 dan1111 September 25, 2017 at 5:26 am

Translation takes a huge amount of work. A good translation is very valuable. Not allowing copyrights on translations of public domain works would be quite harmful.

Copyright has not been a barrier to good, modern translations of the Bible being available. Many groups supporting translation work want the Bible to be accessible, and thus allow it to be distributed very cheaply, or even freely in some forms. The translation I most use, English Standard Version, can be accessed freely online, as a downloadable app, and in audio book form. And they print a paperback version for just a couple of dollars (in bulk), too.

Of course, copyright would not be necessary for good translations of the Bible, since there is so much interest in this and willing to support translation work. But for lesser works it is invaluable. Within the same domain of Christian thought, modern translations of works by early Christian thinkers are hugely valuable. A lot of this would probably not happen without copyright to support it.

8 prior_test3 September 25, 2017 at 7:21 am

‘Translation takes a huge amount of work.’

Yes it does.

‘Not allowing copyrights on translations of public domain works would be quite harmful.’

According to believers, the Bible is the word of God. It seems a bit unsettling to see someone take God’s words, and then profit from them, at least from a certain perspective.

‘or even freely’

The King James version, for example, which will likely to continue to have much more influence on what English speakers imbide from the Bible for the foreseeable future than whatever translation is currently considered the best from a scholarly perspective. Even a translator using English, working from the Greek, will undoubtedly be influenced by that translation.

‘But for lesser works it is invaluable’

I think you may have misunderstood my point, which is why it is now made more clearly above. Other books from the past are essentially always clearly authored by humans (such as those early Christian works), and thus copyright works fine when translating them. It is just that when a believer translates the Bible, and then copyrights their translation, something seems a bit amiss. Of course, a non-believing scholar need not concern themselves with this point.

9 dan1111 September 25, 2017 at 8:53 am

@prior, interesting thoughts. As a Christian, I’ll respond:

There are probably a few extreme exceptions, around, but largely, Christians don’t deny human authorship of the Bible. Christians are generally happy to affirm that, say, Paul was the author of the letter to the Romans, or the prophets (or associates) were the authors of books that bear their name. What they believe is that these human authors wrote with divine inspiration.

If copyright existed in the first century, would it be counter to faith for Paul to copyright Romans? Perhaps. But I could see an argument for it. Even apart from making money off the inspired word of God, having a copyright would allow him to prevent others from misusing the letter, distributing altered copies, etc. From his own writings, we know Paul was quite concerned about people distorting his message, and perhaps this would be a mechanism to try to prevent that. Also, Paul believed that people engaged in ministry had a right to get paid, so they could support themselves (even though he himself did not avail himself of that right, preferring to support himself as a kind of extra, voluntary sacrifice).

Unfortunately, there have been many cases in which Christians sought to improperly profit from ministry work. This is something to lament. But I don’t think copyrighting a Bible translation is automatically problematic. Making money to support the work and the people involved is defensible, as is using copyright to protect the work from misuse or distortion. In practice (as I noted) many Bible translators have treated the question quite differently than a typical book, and have distributed their work widely rather than trying to maximize profits.

10 msgkings September 25, 2017 at 12:40 pm

@dan1111, pearls before swine. prior is on record saying he chooses to consume his media without paying for it. Something something Pirate Party something.

11 y81 September 25, 2017 at 6:45 am

I do know ancient Greek. Any translation which captures the character of the original will not demystify it. The original is a work of overpowering strangeness.

Whether a highly literal translation, which is what I gather Hart has produced, is the best way to capture the character of the original, I am not so sure.


12 Potato September 25, 2017 at 4:24 pm

This is fascinating to a lay person. How much are we missing by reading translations? Are we even getting the gist ?

Something like Anabasis, is even that beyond the scope of real translation ? As an avid reader of the classics and unable to read Ancient Greek, are we just wasting our time reading a telephone game of words?


13 msgkings September 25, 2017 at 4:38 pm

It’s probably too much to say it’s wasting time, but it is interesting to consider the issue of ancient translations.

14 Jeff R September 25, 2017 at 10:39 am

Lots of people have a certain approach to bible study: they show up at their church on Wednesday nights and read parts of it then talk about it.


15 Asher September 25, 2017 at 3:35 am

This doesn’t bother me and I’ll tell you why. Most translations do not even endeavor to “render the Greek (or other original language) of that period as faithfully as possible”. Most translations endeavor to render into English the message that the original author transmitted in Greek (or whatever), which is something quite different. There is a good reason for this, most people want to read the New Testament (or whatever) in English, and not read the Greek of the New Testament in English. But there is great value in having one “reference” translation around which does endeavor to render the original language faithfully.


16 prior_test3 September 25, 2017 at 4:26 am

‘which does endeavor to render the original language faithfully’

According to who? Loyal readers were unaware, until now apparently, that Prof. Cowen’s skills in biblical Greek are actually better than his demonstrated abilities in German and Spanish. Not classical Greek, however, as the Greek spoken by Pericles or Sophocles or Socrates in Athens is separated by centuries from the Greek spoken around the Mediterranean at the time of the death of Jesus.


17 dan1111 September 25, 2017 at 4:41 am

@Asher, while true, “more literal” is not obviously the same as “more accurate” or, as Tyler said “the most accurate translation conceptually and philosophically”.

Greek words, expressions, and idioms often don’t have the same nuances as English. Rendering the Greek literally into English in such cases often misleads, rather than being more accurate. On the other hand, translating based more on the intended meaning rather than the literal words involves interpretation, which can be wrong, or at least biased by the viewpoints of the translator. Basically, translation is really hard. There is a hearty debate about how literal translations should be, in order to achieve the best accuracy. But pretty much everyone would agree that you can’t simply equate “literal” with “accurate”.

I’m intrigued by this translation, both because of the man who did it and his approach. It seems worth looking at. However, I think the criticism of Tyler’s judgement of accuracy is quite apt.


18 prior_test3 September 25, 2017 at 7:24 am

‘Basically, translation is really hard.’

Yes, it is. There is an expression that captures this perfectly.(apparently originally Italian, though I do not have a source) – ‘Translation is like a wife. A beautiful one is unfaithful, and a faithful one is ugly.’


19 JonFraz September 26, 2017 at 1:58 pm

Re: On 9-11 I was camping up on Lake Superior in Canada. I didn’t even hear the news until the following day. Eventually I gave up the camping trip and headed east to Sudbury then down to Toronto. As I passed through the small Ontario towns there were US flags everywhere, and occasionally signs in front of the clapboard churches reading “God save America”. I found myself wondering where they got all those flags? How many Americans could lay hand on a Canadian flag if some awful atrocity befell Canada?

Except that this can involve judgment calls and even semi-deliberate fraud when one has a notion what that message is supposed to be even if the original text does not support. Luther, for example, in translating Romans to German inserted a “nur” (only) into a passage so it read “We are saved only by faith” when the original simply said “We are saved by faith”. “Sola fide” is a key Lutheran concept, yet the text of Scripture is not so strong in its support as Luther made it.


20 Loki September 25, 2017 at 4:01 am

3. “It had not occurred to me, by the way, that the 1974 coup was the first Western European revolution since 1848, unless you count the Nazis.”

Depends of course on how you define a revolution, but if we define it as and armed overthrow of a government by domestic forces (ie not a foreign invasion), there’s Spain 1936-9, Ireland 1919-29, and the 1851 coup that brought Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte to power in France. Though the latter one may be stretching it a bit if we assume that its just a continuation of the upheavals in 1848.

If you include Italy in Western Europe, then there there is the process of unification that went on after 1848 which included several armed revolts, though whether or not Garibaldi was a foreigner depends upon your view of Italian identity at that point.


21 Tom T. September 25, 2017 at 8:23 am

If we’re counting the destruction of political institutions by the Nazis (who were elected) as a revolution, then we ought to count Labor’s abrogation of the lawmaking role of the House of Lords in the UK, right?


22 dearieme September 25, 2017 at 5:57 pm

I must have missed that. When did it happen?


23 Tom T. September 25, 2017 at 8:23 pm

1911 Parliament Act: Commons basically said to Lords, “vote your power away, or there will be a ton of new Lords appointed, and they’ll do it.”


24 mgregoire September 25, 2017 at 9:08 pm

The 1911 Parliament Act was the work of the Liberals, not Labor. Asquith was PM.

25 Stephen September 25, 2017 at 8:43 am

Also the Paris Commune, 1871, and the tragicomic People’s State of Bavaria/Bavarian Soviet Republic, 1918-19. Not all revolutions are successful. Mussolini’s March on Rome, 1922, and the subsequent Fascist rule till 1943, does I think count as a medium-term successful revolution, though.


26 Matt September 25, 2017 at 10:03 am

I was also going to say that it was, at least, not obvious that parts of the Spanish Civil War didn’t count as a revolution. Bits of Hungary post WWI mentioned below also should obviously count, unless we’re being too strict on “Western”. Over-all, the claim seems to either depend too much on arbitrary parameters, and so be trivial, or to be false.


27 Just Another MR Commentor September 25, 2017 at 5:27 am

#3 Timely post as I am in Porto today and it is indeed charming.


28 prior_test3 September 25, 2017 at 11:20 am

That you and our host would consider a country which celebrates genocide against Muslims as part of their history “charming” is telling.


29 msgkings September 25, 2017 at 12:44 pm

LOL a new low in peevish, passive-aggressive point-missing even for you, puffin.


30 M. Klaus September 25, 2017 at 5:47 am

#3 The reason for Portugal’s decline was not the earthquake (as they have in the introduction)… the main reason is the strong influence of the retarded catholic church and the inquisition period (kicking out the jews, burning intelectuals alive…)


31 Art Deco September 25, 2017 at 12:57 pm

The Catholic Church was everywhere in Europe. You’ve confused Spanish and Portuguese history, btw.


32 M. Klaus September 25, 2017 at 6:23 pm

No I didn’t. Inquisition in Portugal was terrible.


33 JonFraz September 26, 2017 at 2:03 pm

It was terrible in Spain too. Portugal’s decline started when the kings of Spain took over the Portuguese throne after the main line of the Portuguese kings out (1580 or so, with full sovereignty restored under the Braganzas in 1644). Portugal remained a separate country, but the Spanish king did not give a hoot about it well-being except insofar as it could mine it for resources. The Dutch and Ottomans seized a number of Portuguese colonies and Portugal was dragged into the war against England (a former ally and trade partner), and also the Thirty Years War.


34 A Truth Seeker September 25, 2017 at 6:16 am

#2 Either America destroys China and Japan or Japan and China desteoy America.


35 rayward September 25, 2017 at 7:19 am

1. Neither Jesus nor His Disciples spoke or wrote Greek (indeed, they didn’t write in any language, as they were illiterate); instead, they spoke Aramaic. Moreover, Paul’s epistles, the oldest of the canon, were originally written in either Aramaic or Hebrew according to many New Testament scholars (some New Testament scholars believe Paul dictated the epistles rather than wrote the epistles himself). But whatever language, we don’t have the “originals”: we have copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies, each copy manually reproduced word by word, letter by letter, mistakes compounded with each reproduction. This means that there is no “accurate translation” of the New Testament. The first English translation of the New Testament (from Greek) was by William Tyndale in 1526 (revised in 1534 and 1536). Tyndale relied on Erasmus’s Greek New Testament for his translation. For his efforts, Tyndale was burned at the stake for the crime of heresy. The most famous English translation of the Bible, the King James Version, is based (roughly 90%) on the Tyndale Bible (including popular phrases such as “Blessed are the peacemakers”). As for Hart’s translation, he doesn’t claim that his text is more accurate (in the sense of duplicating the precise words of the authors); rather, his translation seeks to place the New Testament in the context of the time and Jesus’s and His Disciples’ place in that time: “The first, perhaps most crucial thing to understand about the earliest generations of Christians is that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. They were rabble. They lightly cast of all their prior loyalties and attachments: religion, empire, nation, tribe, even family. In fact, far from teaching ‘family values,’ Christ was remarkably dismissive of the family. And decent civic order, like social respectability, was apparently of no importance to him.”


36 y81 September 25, 2017 at 8:53 am

This is a fairly misleading historical summary. Jesus was certainly literate, as he could not have written in the dust (John 8:6) or had the encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture which he displayed without being able to read. It is impossible to know how fluent Jesus was in Greek, but Palestine was a cosmopolitan place in a cosmopolitan empire, and many first century Jews spoke Greek, just as many Swiss or Danes speak English. An educated world traveler like Paul certainly spoke Greek. And the New Testament manuscript corpus is huge, incomparably larger and earlier than the surviving corpus of Plato or Thucydides. No serious scholar doubts that we possess, thanks to the huge surviving corpus and several centuries of scientific scholarship, highly accurate copies of a set of texts written in the late first to early second century.

If rayward’s summary were accurate, Hart’s claim would be nonsense, as we would have no knowledge of the first century Mediterranean, and could not possibly place Jesus and the early Christians in historical context.


37 dan1111 September 25, 2017 at 8:56 am



38 Oced Tra September 25, 2017 at 11:23 am

Jesus was certainly literate, as he could not have written in the dust (John 8:6) or had the encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture which he displayed without being able to read.

And yet there is no Gospel of Jesus. Nor even a gospel written within his lifetime.


39 dearieme September 25, 2017 at 6:02 pm

Jesus preached the end times. You write gospels for posterity; Jesus thought there would be no posterity.


40 JonFraz September 26, 2017 at 2:09 pm

There are no self-histories written by Alexander the Great either. Was he illiterate?


41 rayward September 25, 2017 at 9:12 am

If one were to read Hart’s essays one would appreciate that Hart appreciates the Bible and especially his translation as being very much a theological document not a historical document. For some people, that is too much of a challenge to their beliefs.


42 DevOps Dad September 25, 2017 at 7:45 pm

“Neither Jesus nor His Disciples spoke or wrote Greek (indeed, they didn’t write in any language, as they were illiterate).”

Matthew was a 1st-century Galilean (presumably born in Galilee, which was not part of Judea or the Roman Iudaea province), the son of Alpheus.
As a tax collector he would have been literate in Aramaic and Greek. -> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_the_Apostle


43 mgregoire September 25, 2017 at 9:18 pm

And of course there’s Luke 4:17, when Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth.

Is it really so hard to believe that Jews 2000 years ago would have been literate?


44 JonFraz September 26, 2017 at 2:08 pm

There’s very good reason to believe that Jesus and the apostles used Greek as the lingua franca of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Anyone who had to have dealings with the Romans, or with the innumerable Greek merchants and colonists in the region had to know Greek– and that was most people, or at least most men. (Bilingualism is an extraordinary thing only in tongue-tied America). There’s also good reason to think that they were literate. Literacy was fairly widespread (again, among men) in classical antiquity, and the Jewish religion relied strongly on Scripture, much as Protestant Christianity did and does. The Gospels depict Jesus as reading from the Scriptures in a synagogue– if that had been preposterous people at the time would have pointed it out and the Gospels would not have been been credible.


45 JonFraz September 26, 2017 at 2:12 pm

As for Tyndale, he ran afoul on Henry VIII, who in his later years could make Kim Jung Un look like a sober and considerate statesman (and very fortunately did not have nuclear weapons, just some rather busy headsmen, hangmen, and fire-starters.)


46 bellisaurius September 25, 2017 at 8:12 am

One thing I’m curious about: How does Tyler keep his hit to miss ratio so high with the books he reads? At an off the top of my head estimation, he legit doesn’t like about 10% or so, and another 10-20ish percent has some level of reservation, but he tries to give a review that the people who’ll be interested will try it.


47 dan1111 September 25, 2017 at 8:21 am

How often is there a book that sounds good to you based on author/blurb/reviews, but then turns out not to be good? How about after the first few pages? I think it is usually easy to tell pretty quickly what is going to be worthwhile. One thing that he has mentioned here is that he stops and discards a book as soon as he thinks it’s not going to be interesting/useful.

Also, does Tyler tell us about every book he has picked up and started reading? Not clear.


48 Tyler Cowen September 25, 2017 at 10:38 am

I cover maybe a tenth of what I look at.


49 Hoosier September 25, 2017 at 4:21 pm

Tc had a post recently about whether he ought to start including more bad reviews. I love bad reviews personally- as long as they’re not spiteful.


50 Tom T. September 25, 2017 at 8:24 am

“In 1986, Portugal had only 123 miles of highway.” How many did Brazil have?


51 JCC September 25, 2017 at 9:39 am

I’m assuming you know how big Portugal is compared to Brazil…


52 A Truth Seeker September 25, 2017 at 12:48 pm

Even more important, you shoulf knpw how big Brazil is compared to the Roman empire at it highest: much bigger!


53 A Truth Seeker September 25, 2017 at 12:50 pm

Stop impersonating me.


54 Tom T. September 25, 2017 at 2:16 pm

I was trying to draw Thiago out into a rhapsodic description of Brazilian motoring.


55 Matt September 25, 2017 at 10:10 am

“Here is a picture showing Portugal as an Atlantic rather than Mediterranean economy.”

This was a bit odd in calling France a “Mediterranean” and “Southern European” economy. The fact that Portugal has (at least one!) opinion that’s closer to Belgium than Spain is, I guess, sort of interesting, but the way it’s presented is really odd, odd enough that it makes me a bit skeptical of the point or interest of the larger claim being made.


56 Glenn September 25, 2017 at 10:57 am

I’d be curious to know the basis of “It is the most accurate translation conceptually and philosophically, taking care to render the Greek of that period as faithfully as possible.” Have you seen The Unvarnished New Testament as translated by Andy Gaus? It’s pretty good, too. Other expert translators of the Bible would be able to look at any other translation and identify the assumptions behind the translation of each word and behind the text as a whole. There’s no such thing as not making assumptions or not having an approach to translation because you have to make choices, and something is always lost in translation. I had a professor of Greek in college who could read Greek like no one else I ever encountered, and he showed just how much is lost, not just because of vocabulary but because of the very structure of the language, and no two languages have the same tools at their disposal. But you have to earn your spurs and spend lots of time with both languages.


57 y81 September 25, 2017 at 1:10 pm

Gibbon described ancient Greek as “a musical and prolific language that gives a soul to the objects of sense, and a body to the abstractions of philosophy.” Even in its rather debased koine form, it has subtlety and beauty that no other language can match.


58 dearieme September 25, 2017 at 6:04 pm



59 y81 September 25, 2017 at 10:19 pm

You have me there.


60 odeboyz September 25, 2017 at 11:46 am

  It is the most accurate translation conceptually and philosophically, taking care to render the Greek of that period as faithfully as possible.

As in “accurate…..as possible.” Cowen should also remember that the translation is, inevitably, a translation of a translation.
Perhaps he should stick to what he’s good at…..?


61 Todd K September 25, 2017 at 3:21 pm

I think Tyler finds many books on Asian relations as “the same old same old” because they are likely written by foreign correspondants. One major problem I have with that type of book is that there is little understanding of economics. Check out the NY Times for how bad reporting on the economics of Japan has been for … a very long time.


62 Roy September 26, 2017 at 4:55 pm

Well, I’ll give anything by DBH a shot.

As an aside, maybe this means Tyler has read Hart’s “The Experience of God.” I think conversation around Tyler’s post on why he doesn’t believe prompted me to pick it up. The book did not convert me, but it does show a conception of God toward which it’s respectable to be agnostic. Lucid, wide-ranging across the faiths and through history, a very good read.

If he hasn’t read it, I think he would enjoy it.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: